Life Above the Clouds

Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick

Edited by Steven DeLay

Subjects: Philosophy, Film Studies, Theology, Aesthetics, Phenomenology
Hardcover : 9781438492117, 426 pages, February 2023
Paperback : 9781438492124, 426 pages, August 2023

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

List of Films Directed by Terrence Malick
List of Illustrations
Robert Sinnerbrink
Malickian Cinema at the Intersection of Art and Philosophy: An Introduction
Steven DeLay

Part I. Cinematic Experience as Ethical Reflection and Spiritual Exercise

1. “Find Your Way from Darkness to Light”: Cinema as Spiritual Exercise
Jonathan Scott Lee

2. Terrence Malick’s Cosmic Cinema
Manuel “Mandel” Cabrera Jr.

3. “Why Should I Be Good If You Aren’t?” The Problem of the Moral World in The Tree of Life
James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig

4. Performativity and Transformative Experience: Terrence Malick’s Mysticism
Rico Gutschmidt

Part II. Mystery, Evil, Creation: Framing the “Big Questions”

5. Life-Time: Mystery in The Tree of Life
David R. Cerbone

6. Not One Power, But Two: Dark Grounds and Twilit Paradises in Malick
Jussi Backman

7. Tending God’s Garden: Philosophical Themes in The Tree of Life
Naomi Fisher

Part III. Explorations of Image and Voiceover

8. Sotto voce: Inscription as Voiceover in Malick’s Days of Heaven
Fred Rush

9. The Melancholic Image in Days of Heaven
Keith Jacobs and Jeff Malpas

10. Terrence Malick’s Ephemeral and Eternal Images: Deleuze, Time-Image, and Montage
James Lorenz

11. Malick’s Cartesianism, or the Ghost by the Machine
Enrico Terrone

12. Love Is Smiling through All Things: Jean-Luc Marion, Simone Weil, and the Visual Style of Terrence Malick
Joel Mayward

13. Let Me Not Pretend: The Promise of Beauty in To the Wonder
Steven Rybin

Part IV. The Pursuit of Freedom and Transcendence

14. Platonic Myths of Eros in Knight of Cups and Song to Song
Matthew Strohl

15. The Alien God Behind the Camera: A Gnostic Viewing of Terrence Malick’s Cinema, especially Knight of Cups
Lee Braver

16. A Hidden Life of Love: Sacrifice in Malick’s Cinematographic Philosophy
Katerina Koci and Martin Koci

17. Bleeding Hearts: Edith Stein, Franz Jägerstätter, and Martyrdom
Donald Wallenfang

18. Authoritarianism and the Authoritarian Personality: Malick’s Tragedy of Disobedience
David Benjamin Johnson

19. “But I Am Free!” Malick on Freedom and Transcendence
Daniel Layman

List of Contributors

The definitive philosophical exploration of the work of pioneering filmmaker Terrence Malick.


Leaving a promising career in academic philosophy to embark on a career in film, American director Terrence Malick has created cinematic works of art that are also deeply philosophical. His contribution to philosophy through a half century of filmmaking has become the focus of increasing scholarly attention. Inviting the reader along a journey of reflections at the intersection of film, art, and philosophy, Life Above the Clouds brings together an international team of contributors to present the most current and definitive statement of the filmmaker's work. Accessibly written and exploring films such as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song, and A Hidden Life, the nineteen essays herein will be of interest not only to scholars and students of philosophy, theology, film studies, and aesthetics, but also to anyone with a true love of film.

Steven DeLay is Research Fellow at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. His many books include Everything; Faint Not: Twelve Brief Meditations on the Word of God; In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith; Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity; and Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction.


"…this diverse volume stands out as one of the more thought-provoking anthologies on Malick as a filmmaker. In Life Above the Clouds: Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick, DeLay curates both established and emerging Malick contributors who keenly prove that illuminating conversations surrounding his work keep us returning to Malick with fresh takes and passionate inquiries." — Philosophical Quarterly

"After Hitchcock, the 'Hollywood auteur' long seemed oxymoronic. What allowed Terrence Malick to break through? Not his renowned genius for casting, nor even his unrivaled cinematography (which blurs the Kantian line between beauty and sublimity), but rather, in a word, his philosophy. As these essays so compellingly illuminate, Malick uses film to philosophize; his films are philosophy carried out in another medium; indeed, he is the filmic philosopher par excellence. Others are now catching up (the later Sheridan, the Smith brothers, Hawley at his deepest), but Malick opened the field and set the terms with which the greatest Hollywood auteurs continue to negotiate. To understand why, and how, start by reading this book." — Iain D. Thomson, author of Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity

"This strong collection engages the spiritual, even mystical, elements of Malick's profoundly moving cinema. In their own distinct ways, these chapters bring a fresh new perspective to our understanding of one of the world's most important living filmmakers." — John Caruana, coeditor of Immanent Frames: Postsecular Cinema between Malick and von Trier

"This is an exceptionally rich, creative, and intriguing study of Malick and his imprint on the world of filmmaking that provides a unique philosophical lens through which such iconic filmmakers can be viewed. Each essay is a unique and well-crafted contribution to a collective whole that reflects the vision of a young and vibrant scholar who adds a much needed and pioneering voice to film studies. In short, Life Above the Clouds is a gem that deserves a prominent place in the contemporary dialogues that lie at the intersection of philosophy, film, the auteur, and the many surrounding forces." — Leo Zonn, editor of Place Images in Media: Portrayal, Experience, and Meaning

"Life above the Clouds is a rare collection: a series of essays about a filmmaker that are resolutely philosophical yet never lose sight of the intricacies, pleasures, and appeals of the films themselves. The essays range across Malick's career, providing original interpretations of his films while shining light on the way broader philosophical and spiritual preoccupations are deployed in and through this original and unique body of work." — Daniel R. Morgan, author of The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera